What are the delays in the performance of our stipulations of which the Bey of Tunis, & Eaton complain? I thought we had not only complied with the treaty, but were doing considerably more … I know that nothing will stop the eternal increase of demand from these pirates but the presence of an armed force, and it will be more economical & more honorable to use the same means at once for suppressing their insolencies.
To James Madison, August 28, 1801
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders call bullies’ bluffs.
Madison was Secretary State, Eaton was American Consul in North Africa, and the Bey of Tunis was one of the provisional rulers of the Barbary States on the North African coast. The predatory actions of the Barbary States, capturing foreign ships on the Mediterranean Sea for ransom, had gone on for decades. Jefferson had been vexed by their behavior since his time as Ambassador to France 15 years earlier.
Jefferson thought the U.S. had gone above and beyond their obligations to Tunis, and he was clearly exasperated. The pirates were bullies and would never be satisfied. The only answer to their increasing demands was a strong naval presence in the Mediterranean. It would cost less and be more honorable than continuing to pay bribes to “protect” American shipping.